20 September 2010

Where now for Les Bleus?

'Great result for France' wrote Florent Malouda on Twitter after his team's 2-0 victory in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a European Championship qualifier earlier this month. 'One win does not mean that we're back to our best but it gives us something to build on for the future.'

After their disastrous World Cup, France needed something to build on. Having left unpopular manager Raymond Domenech in charge after Les Bleus' dismal showing at Euro 2008, letting him preside over a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign concluded by Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland - which cast a long shadow over his squad in South Africa - the FFF took swift, strong action against the strike's perpetrators, banning Nicolas Anelka for 18 games, captain Patrice Evra for five, winger Franck Ribéry for three and Lyon's Jérémy Toulalan for one.

These bans came on top of new manager Laurent Blanc's insistence on a democratic punishment - dropping the entire World Cup squad for a friendly against Norway, which his enthusiastic but inexperienced team lost 2-1. A bigger problem for Blanc was that France lost their first qualifying match at home to unfancied Belarus, highlighting the two biggest problems for the fomer Bordeaux manager, desperate to end a run of four straight defeats.

The first was that his side could not turn possession into clear-cut chances - a problem for Les Bleus ever since Zinedine Zidane's dramatic exit from professional football. France were missing a number of key creative players: Arsenal's Samir Nasri, injured, and Yoann Gourcuff, the playmaker of Blanc's title-winning Bordeaux side, suspended after a red card in Les Bleus' final World Cup game, as well as Ribéry and forwards Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema.

The second will worry Blanc a lot more: France do not have any centre-backs to rival their manager and his more fiery defensive partner Marcel Desailly of the late 1990s, or even Blanc's World Cup final stand-in Frank Leboeuf. The space given to Syarhey Kislyak for the only goal at the Stade de France will not have pleased Blanc, but he boxed around the problem for the 2-0 win over Bosnia - France's best performance for several years - with the selection of three holding midfielders who were young, strong and quick enough to support Malouda and Mathieu Valbuena, who played just behind Benzema in a 4-3-2-1 formation.

Blanc could have a strong front four, reminiscent of the effective attacking diamond that carried Raymond Domenech's side to the 2006 World Cup Final, if Ribéry is restored to the side and picks up his strong understanding with Malouda, tucking in and switching sides in support of a dangerous forward (Henry in 2006, Benzema now, although France's back-up striking options - the injury-prone Louis Saha, the struggling André-Pierre Gignac and Loïc Rémy, who may be affected by a heart condition are not what they were, leading to speculation that David Trézéguet may be recalled).

That diamond was completed by the greatest playmaker of his generation, and Yoann Gourcuff may be the first attacking midfielder unlucky enough to labour under the 'petit Zidane' tag (as so many in Argentina did after being labelled 'the new Maradona' until Lionel Messi surpassed Diego's achievements at Barcelona, if not international level). Gourcuff is struggling for form after a contentious transfer to Lyon and walked out of a press conference when asked about his relationship with Franck Ribéry, following speculation over the summer that a clique of French players did not like Gourcuff or even refused to pass the ball to him - denied by Toulalan. How Blanc handles Gourcuff, and the tensions around him, may define his tenure. One option may be to play Malouda more centrally, behind Valbuena (who impressed in Bosnia) on one side and Ribéry on the other.

A brighter hope is less for a new Zidane, but more for a new Vieira or a new Makélélé - the two defensive midfielders who anchored Domenech's diamond. (It may be that Zidane's son Enzo, recently called up to the Spain Under-17 side, takes some of the pressure off upcoming French playmakers.) Yann M'vila, 20, of surprise Ligue 1 package Rennes, ran France's midfield in Sarajevo and formed a strong triangle with Arsenal's Abou Diaby, a Vieira-style box-to-box midfielder, and Bordeaux midfielder Alou Diarra, whose role was more defensive.

The prevalence of central midfielders may block Toulalan's route back into Blanc's plans, and the biggest dilemma for Blanc is to what extent he recuperates those involved in the World Cup debacle as he tries to reintroduce the togetherness and tenacity of the 1998-2000 side and win over a public that booed his side off after the Belarus reverse. Several players - William Gallas, Henry, Anelka - will never play for France again, and Djibril Cissé and Sidney Govou are unlikely to return. As Blanc has plenty of options at left-back, Evra and Eric Abidal may not feature again either.

Blanc will invite an ex-international to speak to the squad before every game, and has encouraged younger French players to stay in Ligue 1 - and ideally win some silverware - before going abroad, rather than missing out on first-team football as they warm the bench for Europe's giants (as does Gaël Kakuta at Chelsea, or did Gourcuff at AC Milan). This is reminiscent of the long-term planning of 1998 manager Aimé Jacquet, who contacted AS Monaco manager Jean Tigana three years earlier to suggest that he play central defender Lilian Thuram at right-back with a view to picking him (rather than the ageing Jocelyn Angloma) in his World Cup side, and contrasts markedly with Domenech's often inexplicable approach to team-building, and inability to handle conflicts with his squad.

So there is plenty to build on - and with a relatively weak group, Les Bleus should be able to reach Euro 2012, although it is hard to see them preventing Spain, Germany or Holland taking that title, let alone stopping Brazil from slaying a long-standing demon by winning the World Cup on home turf in 2014. Given that L'Espoirs won the Under-19 European Championship in their own country this summer, though, Blanc may build towards Euro 2016, also being held in France. If his new-look team can win over the public and perform respectably at the next two tournaments, and his beliefs about youth development can produce two outstanding centre-backs, then Blanc may just achieve a triumph of long-term planning to rival that of his mentor Jacquet.